‘To do’ to a salvaged material

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Thinking on Tanja Beer’s work from ‘Strung (This is Not Rubbish)’, I considered how a salvaged material like the salami netting may be able to reveal more about its building potential and its interaction through performance.

I happened upon a piece of what I assume to be carpet lining in the bin, and retrieved it in a spontaneous moment with the hope of being able to mould it in some way beyond its fateful journey to landfill.

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Image: ‘Verblist’, Richard Serra, (1967-68) from https://www.moma.org/collection/works/152793 copyright Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York, 2019

Using Richard Serra’s ‘Verblist’ as a starting point for this exploration, I began to test and document how I could begin to explore the physical actions of this object. It bends, folds, rolls, stretches, tears, soaks, squeezes, suspends…it can be mended…

In the act of twisting the material or suspending it over and over again to encroach into the space, we may observe something else begin to happen. We can start to endlessly manipulate the material as entangled with the human experience of doing so and being a part of that process to create new building potentials. Ecoscenographers like Beer, explore this notion in terms of ‘vital materialism’ – “the idea that materials are entangled across bodies, ecosystems and built environments”¹. We may see in these processes some way to bridging the gap between human and non-human actants – perhaps the starting points to begin to engage people in the act of discovering more about their environments and the material potential of things. In her book ‘Vibrant Matter’, theorist Jane Bennett discusses the influence of the ‘assemblage’ of humans and non-humans and how agency can be re-evaluated in context of these groups. Within the assemblage she states: “an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation or interactive interference of many bodies and forces.”² In this sense, humans are integrated as part of the network of acting bodies and not as exerting the total degree of agency over other things. Actions like this in the context of performance, as in ‘Strung (This is not Rubbish)’, play a role in activating the agencies of materials in new ways through physical entanglement with the material.

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Image: ‘Strung (This is not Rubbish)’, 2013. Concept, direction, set and costume design by Tanja Beer; Photography by Alex Murphy, http://www.tanjabeer.com/strung-this-is-not-rubbish/

There is also to be said for this process allowing its participants and observers to view a kind of ‘trans-human’ transformation. The material exerts itself upon the performer as much as the performer does upon it, and has the effect of influencing the performer to behave and interact and ways they otherwise may not. To engage in these exercises can also involve stepping into an ‘otherly’ kind of character and separating from human experience. What if we behaved as the material behaves? What if our ‘character’ could not move? Could only touch? Combined with a process thinking along the lines of direct action, as I was with Serra’s verbs, we may consider how actions such as ‘to suspend’ or ‘to twist’ may transform the activity with the material if our character (or actant) could only exist upside-down…needed physical connection at all times? Could only exist in darkness?

There was also another interesting event at work in this process. What stood out for me was also the act itself of retrieving this material and intercepting the process from used object to discarded one. Perhaps it is the intentional element of this action which I find so intriguing. The conscious decision to pick up a material, snatched from its former identity on the conveyor belt, the supermarket trolley or the suburban street, and manipulated in some way.

I was reminded of some experiments I was doing around this time last year. A simple method of steam bending wood taken from the back of an old wardrobe.

Perhaps in these instances the process comes first, the found material dictating how it may be translated into something else. Once again, these materials were manipulated by relatively simple methods. In terms of pursuing an eco-scenographic approach and thinking on vital materialism, there is potential here to cultivate smaller scale and more easily accessible industrial processes like steam bending into a collection of methods. Methods and tools which can be applied to a variety of small scale found materials and used to fabricate and combine new objects quickly. Perhaps this too may open up the space for spontaneous performance interventions and ad-hoc object arrangements.

 

¹Beer, T. (2016) ‘This is not rubbish: investigating eco-materialism in performance’, https://nivel.teak.fi/carpa4/this-is-not-rubbish-investigating-eco-materialism-in-performance-tanja-beer/

²Bennett, J. (2010) ‘Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things’, Duke University Press; Durham, pp. 21

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